HC Deb 07 April 1976 vol 909 cc407-9
7. Mr. Peter Morrison

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment how many empty council houses there are in England and Wales in whatever condition, including those classified as empty and unavailable for reletting.

Mr. Freeson

The latest relets survey recorded about 22,000 of the 5 million council housing stock in England as vacant and available for letting and about 34,500 undergoing modernisation, repair or conversion. These figures represent about ½ per cent. and ¾ per cent., respectively, of the total local authority stock. This compares with an overall vacancy rate of 4 per cent.

Mr. Morrison

Does the Minister agree that many of these empty council houses could be made habitable for homeless families at a far cheaper price than housing them in inadequate and expensive bed-and-breakfast accommodation?

Mr. Freeson

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's support. Indeed, a very high proportion of the 34,500 properties to which I referred are properties which have been municipalised in a substandard condition and are having works done on them and modernisation undertaken for precisely the purpose to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Mr. Heffer

Is my hon. Friend aware of the fact that in certain large cities, such as Liverpool, we find that council houses are too often left lying empty for long periods and become vandalised, and that this means a loss of revenue to the city, when there are long lists of people waiting for those empty houses? Will not my hon. Friend send out a circular, particularly to the Liverpool City Council, drawing attention to this fact and demanding that new methods of letting should be applied so that people can be got off the housing list and these houses can be let more quickly?

Mr. Freeson

I do not think that there is a need for a general circular on the matter. However, there are certainly problems in particular localities. Liverpool has its share of those problems, such as those described by my hon. Friend. At this stage I shall just say that I have been in touch with Liverpool and other Merseyside authorities on various housing matters, including the matters to which my hon. Friend has referred, and I hope that we shall make progress in this matter in the near future.

Mr. Wigley

In view of the long waiting lists for council houses in many areas, will the Minister consider the possibility of giving grants of up to, say, £500 for those on low incomes who want to buy their own houses for the first time, thereby lifting the pressure of those who are on the council waiting list? Perhaps such a scheme could be offered to all those already in the occupation of council houses, who could thereby perhaps find other homes.

Mr. Freeson

That idea has been put forward to the Department by the NHBC in the context of the housing finance review. We are looking at a whole range of ideas and problems relating to first-time buyers. I would not wish to opt for one particular way of assisting them at this stage.

Mr. Rossi

Is the Minister aware that there is widespread disbelief that the figures that he has given to the House are a comprehensive total of properties in council ownership that are empty today? Will he try to dispel that widespread disbelief by carrying out an urgent inquiry as to the manner in which the figures are calculated, to see whether they include all the empty properties? One is told that in London alone there are 100,000 empty properties in council ownership. That is from checks made by independent organisations. Instead of smiling and grinning in the way that the Minister does, will he satisfy himself by undertaking a survey and investigate the way in which these figures are produced?

Mr. Freeson

I certainly accept that the figures that I have quoted must be treated with some caution. They have been collected in the same way that figures were collected when similar relet surveys were undertaken by the hon. Gentleman's Government a few years ago. But if we are expected to act on the basis of the kind of wild allegations that we get constantly from the hon. Gentleman—of which we have just had another—it makes life a little difficult in establishing the facts for policy making. To suggest, even most faintly, that 100,000 council-owned properties in London are empty is ludicrous. That kind of nonsense really should be stopped.

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